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We Must Not Single Out Arab Americans
Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2001
We Must Not Single Out Arab Americans
by David A. Love
 
As an African American, I am outraged by the singling out of Arab Americans and Muslims following the terrorist attacks.

Throughout the country, there have been reports of the harassment, beatings and killings of Arabs and South Asians. Muslim women and children are afraid to leave their homes and wear their traditional clothing in public for fear of becoming the targets of racial violence. And men deemed to be "Arab-looking" have been removed from airplanes after passing through security checkpoints.

Outside of Detroit, a 45-year-old U.S. citizen originally from Yemen was shot 12 times in the back by his girlfriend's former lover. The suspect reportedly told the victim: "I'm going to kill you for what happened in New York and D.C."

The FBI is investigating the murder of Waqar Hasan, a 46-year-old Pakistani grocer in Dallas, and authorities cite racial hatred as the motivation behind the killing of Balbir Singh Sodhi, 49, an Indian Sikh gas-station attendant in Mesa, Ariz. When he was arrested, the suspect in the Mesa killing reportedly said, "I stand for America all the way!" The FBI is also investigating the killing of an Egyptian-American grocery-store owner, Adel Karas, 48, who was shot to death in his store in San Gabriel, Calif.

In Seattle, the federal government has charged a man with shooting at Muslim worshipers and attempting to set a mosque on fire. In Salt Lake City, a man was arrested for allegedly setting fire to a Pakistani restaurant. And there have been several other cases.

Rep. John Cooksey, R-La., did not make things better when he declared on a radio show that "someone who comes in that's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over." Cooksey later apologized.

On a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis to Salt Lake City, three Arab-American men were expelled from the plane because of their ethnicity. Northwest removed the three men when the other passengers refused to fly with them. In Orlando, Fla., two Pakistani businessmen were removed from a flight they had boarded after the pilots insisted on their expulsion due to their perceived ethnic background.

In times of war and national crisis, Americans often have felt the need to find a scapegoat. Typically, these scapegoats have been members of racial and ethnic minority groups.

At the height of the Civil War in 1863, armed mobs took to the streets of Manhattan in protest of President Lincoln's federal draft order. The mob of poor white laborers ultimately directed their wrath toward African Americans, who as noncitizens were exempted from the draft and competed with poor whites for the lowest-paying jobs.

African Americans were lynched and beaten in the streets, and a black church and a black orphanage were burned to the ground. The Civil War draft riots claimed at least 105 lives.

After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of 112,000 residents of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, according to the Los Angeles Times.

More recently, in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Arab communities in the United States were harassed. However, the public soon learned that the person responsible for the bombing was Timothy McVeigh, a 27-year-old white male. Yet no one suggested that the government harass and target the nation's young white men on the grounds that they pose a threat to national security.

So, why are Arabs and Muslims branded as terrorists?

"The American popular culture has been poisoned by the vicious racism of Hollywood and the op-ed pages of American newspapers," according to Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed in movies and TV in almost exclusively negative terms, as terrorists or oil sheiks. We have been telling the entertainment industry for years that if they refused to show any positive or neutral Arab or Muslim characters, this could lead under the right circumstances to a rash of hate crimes."

Ibish's sentiments are confirmed by recent polls. A Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of Americans supported more intensive airport security checks for Arab passengers, even those who are citizens, and 49 percent supported special identification. A Zogby poll presented a more positive view of Arab Americans, with 62 percent of Americans holding a favorable opinion of Arab Americans, although 38 percent of its respondents believed that Islam encourages "fanaticism."

In both polls, African Americans, the primary targets of racial profiling by police, were ironically the group most in favor of intensive security measures for Arab Americans.

Americans cannot respond to terrorism by inflicting their own brand of terror on fellow citizens and residents, simply because they are or appear to be members of a particular ethnic, racial or religious group. The singling out of people based on ethnicity or looks must stop now.

David A. Love is a public-interest scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He contributed to the book "States of Confinement: Policing, Detention and Prisons" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

David A. Love

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